Q&A: A Sex Trafficking Intervention Uses Expressive Arts

A handshake showing a hand with the word hope on it, and arm with a poem written on it.

We know that expressive arts activities can be a powerful means to help young people heal from trauma. The Surviving Together, Achieving and Reaching for Success (STARS) program for sex-trafficked girls and young women ages 12-24 at San Diego Youth Services (SDYS) in San Diego has been around for nearly a decade, and combines My Life My Choice, a sex trafficking curriculum, with trauma-healing expressive arts activities.

Laura McLean, STARS program manager, explained why and how her agency conducts this holistic and trauma informed program for sex-trafficked youth.

NCFY: What motivated you to create a program for sex-trafficked youth?

Laura McLean: We were seeing a big increase in girls coming into SDYS [who had been involved in sex trafficking] or were on probation for prostitution. These youth weren’t being as successful in the program; it comes down to fact that they couldn’t talk about the trauma they experienced without judgment and shame from peers, and even at times from staff, so we wanted to fulfill a need we were seeing in our own program. When we looked into these issues, we saw that there weren’t any services in the San Diego area for [survivors of sex trafficking]. STARS started as a small weekly support group youth could come to, to talk, share, and get psychoeducation.

NCFY: What was your rationale for including expressive arts activities?

Research supports the fact that [expressive arts activities] can help decrease post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, anxiety, and depression, and help youth develop safe coping skills. Many will pull out a coloring book and pastels as opposed to [engaging in] cutting or self-harm. Some do it before they go to bed to help relax if they have sleeping issues. And kids in custody have a lot of anxiety; it’s really helpful for them. Giving [youth] a space to heal that’s not strictly talking is really important.

While using the My Life My Choice curriculum in STARS, we found that if we focused too much on directly talking about trafficking experiences, it’s too negative. We used to have support groups every week, but we were losing [youth]. They didn’t want to come, or started acting out, and didn’t want to talk about things all the time. STARS was a constant reminder that they’d been trafficked. Trafficking is only one form of trauma, and for some it’s not the biggest; many had also experienced child abuse, neglect, parenting issues, and sexual abuse and assault outside of the trafficking. So we started to pull activities from the curriculum one week, and do art projects focused on self-care or coping skills the next. We tried to create an environment focused on [young people’s] empowerment and overall healing, in which healing can happen at different levels.

NCFY: How is expressive arts therapy integrated into the STARS program?

McLean: We include art in workshops; for example, youth engage in [doing] scrapbooking, vision boards, [and] visual representations of memories and future aspirations, using media such as painting, pastel, and coloring. We also engage youth in self-care crafts, such as making body scrubs, lotions, and essential oils to help with stress, anxiety, and overall coping. Doodling and coloring are also used in therapy while youth are talking; for a lot of youth it soothes them and calms them. Art lets them be a kid again, and getting their hands dirty through creating may be something they didn’t get to do when they were younger.

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